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Inside Syria: First Polio Outbreak Since 1999

A man holds a young boy in Atma, a camp for internally displaced Syrians near the border with Turkey. Immense displacement caused by the war has led to the breakdown of routine immunization systems.  © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-0691/GIOVANNI DIFFIDENTI

A man and child at a camp for displaced Syrians near the Turkish border. War and displacement have led to Syria’s first polio cases in over a decade. © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-0691/GIOVANNI DIFFIDENTI

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed 10 cases of polio yesterday among children in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zouwar. It is the country’s first outbreak in 14 years, and UNICEF is mobilizing a huge supply operation to make sure that vaccines are in place to immunize 2.4 million children across the country. A further 12 suspected cases are still being investigated.

The outbreak in Syria, where polio had long been considered eradicated, underscored the urgency of the region-wide immunization campaign, supported by UNICEF, that began on October 20. Around 500,000 children in some of the hardest to reach parts of the country have not been vaccinated against polio over the last two years due to the war. Prior to the conflict, immunization coverage in Syria was about 95 percent.

UNICEF is working with WHO, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other partners to make sure Syrian children get immunizations against polio as well as measles, mumps and rubella. In addition to vaccines, UNICEF is supplying cold chain equipment, syringes, vaccination cards and communication materials.

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake traveled to Damascus over the weekend and met with senior Syrian officials including Prime Minister Wael Al Halqi. During his two-day visit, Lake stressed the importance of the emergency immunization efforts in order to prevent the disease from spreading beyond Syria’s borders. “With cases of polio now emerging in Syria for the first time since 1999,” said Lake, “reaching every child with polio and other vaccinations is not only an urgent and critical priority for Syria but for the whole world.”

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Two girls at a school in Damascus wait their turn to receive vaccinations as part of a UNICEF-supported campaign. © UNICEF/Syria-2013/Rashidi

Two girls at a school in Damascus wait their turn to receive vaccinations as part of a UNICEF-supported campaign. © UNICEF/Syria-2013/Rashidi

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